Jean Françaix: a quintessentially French composer following in the tradition of Saint-Saëns, Poulenc and Satie; composer of some one-hundred-and-fifty works; and virtuoso pianist in his own right. The four works on this recording were composed between 1942 (the Divertissement—very much a 'distraction' during the Nazi Occupation of France) and 1977 (the Clarinet Quintet). All four share a high degree of compositional mastery, but this is always embedded within an air of grace, of profound charm, and of wit. It is perhaps this sense of humour which has so endeared Françaix's music to generations of musicians and music-lovers. But despite the facts that L'heure du berger was composed in honour of a Parisian restaurant who were to use it as 'background' music, that Françaix self-deprecatingly passed off A huit as a 'stop-gap to fill a programme' for the Vienna Octet, and that the Divertissement contains unashamedly blatant musical jokes, these compositions are unmistakably the work of an expert, a distinctively 'Gallic' artist.
One of the world’s foremost wind quintets meets one of today’s finest pianists in a work that many consider to be the best work for piano and winds: Poulenc’s Sextet, as well as works by other French composers. The composer himself called it ‘a homage to the wind instruments which I have loved from the moment I began composing’, and its cheeky character, virtuosic drive and catchy melodies are typical of his other writing for wind instruments. Poulenc also supplied the piano with a crucial – and virtuosic – part, however, including jazzy elements typical of the period as well as emotional outbursts in the manner of Rachmaninov.
Nielsen composed most of his wind chamber music towards the latter part of his career, when his interests moved from strings to wind instruments. The disc includes the most familiar and widely recorded specimen of Nielsen’s chamber writing, the 1922 Wind Quintet, coupled with lesser known works such as Serenata in Vano, Two Fantasies Op.2 and Canto Serioso. “Both major and minor works are wonderfully played… One can urge immediate acquisition of this disc,” wrote Fanfare. Although, now longer performing publicly, the Athena Ensemble had an excellent career and reputation, “The music is expertly performed with charm, sensitivity and imagination by the Athena Ensemble” said Classic CD (on the Elgar Wind Quintet recording, CHAN 241-33) and this disc is sure to remind listeners of their back catalogue with Chandos.